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Political (Puppet) Theater

Will Coviello on Paul Zaloom's satirical puppets, coming to the Contemporary Arts Center

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Paul Zaloom created The Punch and Jimmy Show with a twisted update on the classic characters Punch and Judy.
  • Paul Zaloom created The Punch and Jimmy Show with a twisted update on the classic characters Punch and Judy.

In his satire The Adventures of White-Man, Paul Zaloom uses a collection of found objects to play White-Man, including a golf trophy, a polar bear, a teapot and a California Highway Patrol doll. God is sometimes represented as a beard or a gay tornado. Zaloom's found-object shows have not always been perceived as puppetry.

  "You better call me a puppeteer," he responds in his New York accent when asked if that's an appropriate title. Whether he's working with a rod puppet, a Little Mermaid electric toothbrush, a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary or a toaster, Zaloom believes there is a simple art to puppetry. "With technique — it is important to me that I do it really well. If I take a rod puppet or a hand puppet or overhead projection, I have to imbue it with life. You want to manipulate the thing so it's real."

  Zaloom works with classic puppet forms, including rod puppets and toy theater, but some of his most inspired work comes from animating found objects. It's not improv; he works off scripts, but in some shows, his irreverence and occasional foul-mouthed candor echoes comedians like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Zaloom offers a more simple explanation of his shows.

  "It's like making movies for $9," he says. "Except they're live, and they're not movies."

  At the Contemporary Arts Center, Zaloom presents an episode of White-Man, The Punch and Jimmy Show and a prologue about "American Bumper Sticker Literature." He'll also lead a workshop, and participants are encouraged to bring at least six objects to create their own scenes.

  Zaloom has a background in puppetry, which one could almost call a formal education. He essentially skipped college to work with Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater, but he was attending a hippie alternative college, which gave him credit for the work. "We didn't have classes, we didn't have grades," he says. "We had our own strain of the clap."

  Bread and Puppet's massive puppet shows attracted him, and he worked with the group for a dozen years before starting his solo career. (He returns to work with the company every summer). He had more of a taste for humor than Bread and Puppet, and he has no problem with being called an entertainer or artist. Some of Zaloom's shows are based on traditional forms. The Punch and Jimmy Show is an updated and twisted version of the Punch and Judy characters, derived from commedia dell'arte characters (the trickster Punchinello and his wife), but Jimmy is a cop and the play is about gay assimilation. White-Man is about social anxieties about multiculturalism. His political leanings are both liberal and non-partisan irreverent.

  "It's like a USO show for the left," he says.

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